The state of sales training

Dave Stein

“Only 69 percent of ASTD survey respondents believe that the formal sales training they receive is in any way effective. That’s at least a 30 percent failure rate...”

I’m delighted to return to writing a regular column for Sales & Marketing Management, and to offer my sincerest thanks to Mike Murrell and Paul Nolan for inviting me to contribute to the revival of this much-needed learning platform for sales and marketing managers.

Sales training is my area of expertise. I currently run ES Research (ESR), an independent research and advisory firm offering knowledge and advice to sales training buyers and providers, and I have decades of hands-on experience as both a trainer and a consultant. I look forward to providing you with plenty of research, insight and recommendations in every issue. 

So, what’s going on in the world of sales training? 

The simple answer is, not enough. In a recent ESR survey, 63 percent of 537 respondents indicated that their companies spend less than $3,000 per year per rep for sales training. In a report ESR wrote for the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), 89.5 percent of respondents indicated that they use self-directed learning — on their own — as their primary learning method, followed by reading books/articles, discussions with peers, observing others, and eight other approaches. At 13th and 14th, external and internal training courses offered through the company placed near the bottom of the list. Only 69 percent of the ASTD survey respondents believe that the formal sales training they receive is in any way effective. That’s at least a 30 percent failure rate, and ESR’s experience tells us that many who believe the training was effective aren’t actually selling any more than they did before they were trained.

In fact, with billions spent every year on sales training, overall sales productivity is stagnant. Most industry analysts agree that about 50 percent of salespeople don’t attain their annual quotas. The list of reasons for that stunning lack of productivity includes few surprises, but it is lengthy: ineffective hiring, lack of a standardized selling process, inadequate selling support from other departments and senior management, and a short-term, tactical, event-based approach to learning, if one exists at all.

Why is sales training so ineffective? 

It’s not all ineffective. Some terrific sales training firms deliver real value to their customers. Yet, all too often, an investment in sales training offers a negative return. Whose fault is that? The sales training buyer and the trainer share equal blame. Sales leaders don’t understand how their customers buy today, they underfund sales performance improvement initiatives, and they shun the kind of process and discipline required from other departments, such as finance, manufacturing, HR, logistics and R&D. Compounding the problem, more than a few sales trainers focus on selling what makes them the most margin (classroom training versus one-on-one coaching, for example) and what they do best, rather than providing what you really need.

Is there any good news?

Yes. In 2011, sales training has undergone significant advances, especially in the areas of on-demand and live virtual learning (distance or e-learning), measuring the impact of training, coaching, psychometric and other assessments, individualized curricula for an increasingly diverse sales force, leadership and sales management training, messaging, and selling in the challenging environments where strategic sourcing and procurement rule the day. 

You won’t find any tricks or silver bullets in this column, but I can offer you real, practical guidance. My first bit of wisdom is this: There are no shortcuts to sales effectiveness. Those “tricks and silver bullets” will divert your attention from what you really have to do to improve the effectiveness of your sales team. In the face of increasing demands for productivity, tougher competition and shrewd, cost-conscious customers, it’s a strategic approach to sales training that will put your team ahead.  


Dave Stein is CEO and founder of ES Research Group, Inc., and a member of this magazine’s editorial advisory board. After thriving in careers in software engineering, sales, sales leadership, marketing, general management, international business development, sales training and management consulting, Dave has become an internationally recognized expert in sales training. He is also the author of “How Winners Sell.” He blogs at